Immigrant Nations

May 12, 2011

Paul Scheffer is renowned for his seminal 2000 article "The multicultural drama", which sparked a debate in Dutch politics on immigration and integration. He wrote of a lenient, generous Dutch people whose policies had failed adequately to promote the Dutch language and culture in immigrant communities. He argued that diverse ethnic and cultural identities had been awarded priority over Dutch liberal democratic values, and that Dutch society had done too little to tackle integration despite increasing concern about the growing number of immigrants, especially Muslims.

His article gained further prominence in light of a subsequent period of increased tension between the West and its Muslim immigrant communities. This was witnessed in the Netherlands with the assassinations of politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, and film-maker Theo van Gogh in 2004, and the controversies surrounding the anti-Islam views of MPs Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and more widely with the events of 11 September 2001 in the US and the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings.

With Immigrant Nations, Scheffer offers an extension of his earlier arguments and an answer to his critics. Central to his position is that the process of migration is much more complex than is believed, and leads to profound changes, not only for migrants but also for host societies. He asserts that there are three key stages inherent to the settlement of migrant communities: avoidance, conflict and accommodation.

Rather than viewing conflict as a sign that integration has failed, Scheffer argues that it is essential in leading to the self-examination on both sides that is vital for integration to occur. By drawing on case studies and examples from Western countries including the US, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and France, he emphasises the similarities of views and experiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and seeks to look beyond widely accepted beliefs such as the Netherlands being a country of tolerance and moderation and the US being a "nation of immigrants".

As part of the process of self-examination, Scheffer argues that host societies must reconsider the meaning of citizenship, reach a clear definition of national identity and construct a new "us". He believes Western countries should look beyond multiculturalism and recognise that the approach adopted until now has failed. Instead, he proposes that selection criteria for immigrants should be more carefully drawn, immigration policies should be clearer and the values of an open society should be re-examined.

The book takes a largely historical approach and draws heavily on the established literature in the fields of urban studies, sociology, cultural anthropology and history, and is highly influenced by Scheffer's engagement with literature, journalism and political debates. While there is no doubt that some of his arguments have already proved controversial and divisive, Immigrant Nations is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the issue.

He offers insightful discussion of immigration's relationship with slavery and colonialism, while providing in-depth analyses of individual nations' historical contexts and experiences, recognising the importance of Islam in the current debate, and drawing on his own contacts and experiences. With a warning that the future integration of migrant communities should by no means be taken for granted, Scheffer offers insight into one of the greatest changes and challenges facing Western society.

Immigrant Nations

By Paul Scheffer

Polity Press

300pp, £60.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9780745649610 and 6496

Published 13 May 2011

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